Humbly bred, owned by a couple of wisecracking partners, and trained by a 77-year-old who has never had a horse this good before, California Chrome wasn't supposed to get here, either. Not based on his bloodlines. Not based on anything. But all he does is win.
"I wouldn't want to be in anybody else's shoes. I think this horse is a phenomenal horse," trainer Art Sherman said. "Right now, he's running on high, and I think when he gets to the Belmont, this horse is going to run big."
Chrome had to run bigger in the Preakness than the Derby. He had to pause slightly around the first turn; was asked for some gas a little earlier than expected; and then had plenty left to hold off a strong late run by Ride On Curlin, who got up from far back to get second place.
It was more trouble than the winner had seen through most of his five-race win streak leading up to the Preakness. But for those who thought the big chestnut colt couldn't deal with adversity, this race ended that notion.
While a win at the Belmont would be great for a game that has waited a long time for its next superstar, it would also represent some amends for jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode one of those near-misses from the last 36 years. Espinoza was on War Emblem in 2002 when he won the Derby and Preakness for trainer Bob Baffert, but finished a disappointing eighth to Sarava in the Belmont.
War Emblem suffered a terrible trip, going almost to his knees coming out of the starting gate, then rallying to take a lead on the final turn before fading badly. Espinoza has had 12 years to think about how close he came.
"I learned a lot. I think the first time, there were some things I was kind of not ready for," Espinoza said. "Some things I did I shouldn't have done. Now I have a second chance, and I'll probably enjoy myself a little bit better."
Espinoza, who took over the mount when Chrome began his streak with the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park in December, said he was more tired mentally than physically after the Preakness.
"This race was just a little complicated," Espinoza said. "You have a tenth of a second to make decisions, and you hope you make the best decision. It was crazy."
Espinoza got California Chrome away cleanly and was prepared to sit second behind Pablo Del Monte on the first turn when longshot filly Ria Antonia, ridden by the unpredictable Calvin Borel, came shoving past. Espinoza checked in behind her as well and then settled in until the half-mile mark, where Social Inclusion made a move on the lead.
"I'm just glad I don't study the form. It don't work out the way you think the horses are going to go," Espinoza said. "I go in like a blind guy. I make my decisions in the race."
Espinoza decided he had to go with Social Inclusion even though it was a lot earlier than he liked, and he hoped he still had enough horse left when it mattered.
"Turning for home, I had to open it up at that point," Espinoza said.
He didn't know it would be Ride On Curlin coming, but he did know - from the form or otherwise - that something would be coming. Curlin, nine lengths back at the half-mile, put on a great closing burst and seemed capable of running down Chrome.
It wasn't that the winner had another gear. He just kept churning. One more race and he will churn into history.
"It takes a super horse to win the Triple Crown. It's not easy. If it was easy, a lot of horses would do it," Espinoza said. "It has to be a super horse. Hopefully, he comes back good and he's the one who can do it. I think he's going to be all right."
California Chrome is more than all right. He's very good. In three weeks, we find out if he's that super horse.
"I need a whiskey," co-owner Steve Coburn said after the race, and he meant it.
At the Belmont, he might need champagne.